Fresno's University High graduating to new digs

Students at University High School for a decade have crammed into drab portable classrooms that hardly live up to the charter school's stellar academic image.

By November, those days will be over. The school is to move into a 37,000-square-foot modern building taking shape on the southeast side of the Fresno State campus. It will feature 22 classrooms, three music rooms and a spacious courtyard. No longer will students have to shove band equipment aside in one classroom, for example, when it's time for P.E.

Students say they are looking forward to more than just a new building. Those portable classrooms have terrible acoustics -- a problem for a school specializing in the performing arts.

They will have to find a new nickname for University High, long called "Trailer Park High," said 15-year-old Hannah Plunkett, who will be a junior when school starts in August.

Hannah said the dark-brown portable classrooms have provided students a close, homey environment and helped nurture the school in its first decade. But it's time to grow up.

Hannah, a voice student, said she looks forward to practicing with other singers in the spacious music rooms. She said the rooms will give them a better sense of what they sound like in a concert hall. One of the rooms has an attached recording studio.

The university's School of Arts and Humanities launched the school, but it operates under a charter approved by the Fresno Unified School District. The state gives charter schools more flexibility in how they are run as a way of encouraging innovation in public education.

Students come from nine Valley cities from Chowchilla to Visalia. The only requirements: They must have at least a two-year background in music and must have completed first-year algebra in middle school.

University High students take classes both at University High and on the Fresno State campus -- but pay no fees. And they generally excel academically on state standardized tests: The school's academic performance index score was 915 last year, out of a maximum of 1,000, and near the top statewide. The school has swept the national Academic Decathlon's small schools category for each of the last four years.

University High students heard talk of a new building soon after the school opened.

But the plans -- including where to build it at Fresno State -- kept changing, and construction was contingent on state funding. Some students began wondering whether it were ever going to happen.

Things finally began to fall into place.

Officials chose a site near Fresno State's administration building and the Smittcamp Alumni house. The project was one of about 20 awarded state funding from Proposition 55, a 2004 school bond act. University High expects to spend about $18.7 million to build and furnish the school.

Given the limited funds, receiving money from the bond was recognition of the school's accomplishments, said Fred Yeager, assistant division director of school facilities planning at the California Department of Education in Sacramento.

The building is modern and sleek, designed by award-winning Fresno architect Art Dyson. Most of the west wall will be covered with stainless steel, with a curved facade similar to that of Fresno City Hall.

"This is one of the few cases where a charter school is being built tailor-made for the students," said James Bushman, University High's head of school.

Bushman and his staff of about two dozen teachers have helped plan for a school that will be unique -- down to the nontraditional design of its furniture.

Bushman said officials plan to spend about $400,000 on new furnishings. But they will stretch their dollars by piggy-backing on Fresno State's purchasing power -- the school is part of a co-op that gets discounts of up to 70%.

Bushman said one full day will be set aside for the move -- which could happen in late October or early November. It will require a very coordinated effort and possibly a canceled school day. He hasn't decided whether students will be asked to help.

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Williams, who will be a senior, said the new building is more than wood frames and stainless steel -- it represents a new era for the school. Plus, it will be a lot easier for visitors to find.

"I think the new building is kind of a new stage for University High School," he said. "It's kind of like, this is what we've worked for all these years."

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